Cardinal from Baltimore stands in for ailing pope

Pontiff's absence fuels speculation about health

February 10, 2005|By Janice D'Arcy | Janice D'Arcy,SUN STAFF

While Pope John Paul II blessed ashes from a Rome hospital room yesterday, American Cardinal James Francis Stafford presided over the first Ash Wednesday service at St. Peter's Basilica the pope has missed in his 26-year tenure.

The appearance of Stafford, a former auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and a city native, was an indication of the ailing pope's limitations, since Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the holiest period on the Roman Catholic calendar.

Concerns about the pope's condition were echoed in Baltimore. "At this Eucharist, I was particularly mindful of his health," said Cardinal William H. Keeler after he concluded midday Ash Wednesday services at a crowded St. Alphonsus Church downtown.

Keeler noted that recent reports from the Vatican indicate the pope is recovering from flu-based respiratory problems that led to his emergency hospitalization Feb. 1.

The 84-year-old pontiff also suffers from Parkinson's disease and arthritis.

"Please keep him in your prayers, but also know the reports from the media have been hopeful and helpful," Keeler said.

Optimistic updates have done little to quell speculation that John Paul's recent illness has pushed him toward retirement. This brought comments from Vatican officials that some Holy See experts interpreted as veiled suggestions that the pope might step down.

The most significant came Monday, when Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state, responded to a reporter's question about the possibility of a resignation by saying, "Let's leave this hypothesis up to the pope's conscience."

By standards of the cloistered Vatican, it was viewed as extraordinary candor. Religion News Service called it "a startling break with Vatican protocol," and the news led many Vatican watchers to read canon law on the legalities of resignation.

"Everybody lost their heads," said George Weigel, a Washington-based biographer of Pope John Paul II. Weigel said phone calls to him came one after another.

Other Vatican officials have offered assurances that the Pope will not resign, and yesterday they released a previously written Lenten message that discusses the importance of the elderly in the church.

As many as 10 popes have resigned over the centuries, but none in modern times. And John Paul has repeatedly said he plans to remain as leader of the Church.

"He sees it as not just a job, but a vocation, a mission from God. He's not going to quit no matter how much pain and suffering," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor in chief of America, the National Catholic Weekly.

On the other hand, Reese said, the pope might be so committed to the Church that he would step down if he feels his tenure is harming it. "We just have to wait and see," he said.

Meanwhile, Stafford presided over the services that mark the beginning of Lent, 40 days of reflection and sacrifice before Easter.

Ordained in Baltimore in 1957, Stafford heads the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican tribunal that deals with excommunications and other issues.

The pope appointed him auxiliary bishop in 1976, and later made him bishop of Memphis, Tenn., and then archbishop of Denver. In 1996, he was appointed to a Vatican post, and two years later was elevated to the College of Cardinals. In 2003, he was appointed to his current position, a top Vatican post.

Stafford read yesterday's homily in Italian, according to the Associated Press.

"In addressing you, brothers and sisters, I feel the joy and the honor of leading this solemn ceremony in the name of the Holy Father," he said. "We feel his spiritual presence among us and we remember him with affection while asking the Lord to grant him the graces necessary for his charisma as primate to unite the brothers in the faith."

Separately, the Vatican released the pope's Lenten message, written in September, asking Catholics to "deepen the awareness of the role that the elderly are called to play in society and in the Church."

"If it is true that man lives upon the heritage of those who preceded him," the pope wrote, "and that his future depends definitively on how the cultural values of his own people are transmitted to him, then the wisdom and experience of the elderly can illuminate his path on the way of progress toward an ever more complete form of civilization."

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